Is Early Decision Right for You? A Simplified Approach to a Complicated Question

Students and parents frequently ask us whether or not they should apply Early Decision to a college. It’s not an easy question to answer; not only because there are generally quite a number of options when it comes to when to apply, but also because a number of factors need to be considered. For a refresher on the main types of applications deadlines, check out our overview, Applications 101.

Now, let’s talk strategy. For better or worse, we live in an Early Decision world. Many highly selective colleges, including Vanderbilt, Pomona, Emory, Johns Hopkins, and Northwestern, fill nearly half of their classes via the Early Decision pool. And the acceptance rates are often significantly higher during the early decision round of admissions. Our good friends, Jeff Levy and Jennie Kent, created an annual spreadsheet showing the admissions rates for Early Decision as well as the percentage of the class filled with these early applicants.

The increase in the percentage of students being accepted in the early pool changes the dynamic in the regular decision pool as well. By the time the college considers regular decision applicants, they are often left with the need to round out their classes geographically, ethnically, and by interests/talents. When you look at the overall acceptance rate for a college, keep in mind that this is the average of the early acceptance rate and the regular acceptance rate. A high percentage of students accepted early decision drives down the acceptance rate at regular decision.

Knowing the stats, however, is just one piece of the puzzle. Before you commit yourself to a college via Early Decision, we recommend asking yourself a few questions:

  1. Is this college my clear favorite? I often suggest that students spend the night at the college to confirm that it is the right fit.
  2. Can my family afford this college? You should not apply early if you can’t afford it. You can use the college’s EFC calculator to determine possible aid. Another option is to call and speak with the financial aid office at the college.
  3. Will applying early significantly help my application? It really doesn’t make sense to apply early if you aren’t going to get an admissions bump out of it.
  4. How likely am I to change my mind? You know yourself. Do you often change your mind on big decisions or do you tend to make up your mind and stick with your decision? Early decision is binding and therefore not for the faint of heart.

Is your head swimming a bit? Selective college admissions involves complicated decisions that can have a huge impact. All that said, early decision is NEVER a good plan if the student does not have a clear favorite college. So, go back over that college list and see if there is one college that jumps out. If so, Early Decision might just be the right decision for you.